Getting a letter of recommendation is a key component in applying for educational or professional opportunities. There are a few important factors to keep in mind when getting letters of recommendation: be sure the letters are from those who know you and your work ethic well, be specific with the recommender about what the letter needs to say, be professional and polite when asking, and allow the recommender enough time to write the letter(s).
If you are applying for an educational opportunity, such as graduate school, be sure you ask the professor or professors who know you well. You want professors who can speak to who you are as a person as well as what your work ethic is like. Be sure these professors are professors you have had multiple times and not just for introductory courses. The best professors to ask letters of recommendation from are practicum professors and professors you have had for upper division courses. When applying for a professional opportunity, such as a career, it is important to look for recommenders who can speak to your professional work ethic. While it may seem that professionals with titles are the best way to go, if the person does not know you on a personal level, they cannot write an adequate letter of recommendation. An important thing to remember when deciding who to ask to write your letters is to choose those who can write well about you—if you did not do good work for that person, they are less likely to be willing to write you a letter recommending you to school or a job.
When asking someone if they would write a letter of recommendation for you, it is important to ask politely. Explain what you are applying for, and ask if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf. While very simple, this step is very important.
Explain to the recommender what the letter needs to say. If your graduate program has specific qualities they want the recommender to speak to, be sure you tell your recommender what those qualities are. Copying the letter requirements would be helpful to the person writing the letter. For a career application, try to look for a recommender who is in the same or similar field or, for a career right out of college, a professor who can speak to qualities about you that match the job requirements. Are you very resourceful? Are you energetic? Do you finish tasks you begin? Can you generate new and unique ideas? These are all things to consider about yourself, and they are things a recommender will consider. Ask them to highlight specific things in the letter that you feel speak strongly to your character.
The last important step is to make sure you give your recommender enough time to complete the letter. Once they say they will write one for you, tell them when the letter is due. At least one month in advance is highly recommended because your recommender will have other priorities and engagements on their plate. This gives them time to think of what they want to say, to write the letter, and, if you are not doing it, to send it to the appropriate person.
Letters of recommendation are extremely important, and most often required, for applications to either school or a career. Because it is such an important piece in an application, it is important to get recommendations that speak to your character as an individual as well as a professional or student.